Do you know what waste is?

Blog Post by Ellie Shaw 30 June 2015

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The question of what exactly constitutes waste is the subject of many questions and debates when we’re visiting businesses and organisations across all types of sectors. All businesses produce waste, whether it’s leftover raw materials that can’t be used (like the scraps when you’ve cut out a pattern from fabric), the piece of paper you dropped in the recycling bin this morning, or the tea bag you put in the bin after making yourself a brew. 

One of the issues is that many people only view ‘waste’ as something that goes in the bin and is sent to landfill; without understanding the legal definition the term ‘waste’ can cause a bit of confusion.

For instance: are those fabric scraps bought off you by another company, who processes them to recover the fibre and make new yarn, waste? Is that piece of paper still waste if it’s going to be recycled? If you compost the teabag and use the compost in those flowerbeds by reception, does that still count as waste? The answer in every case is yes! They would all still be defined legally as your business' waste.

Understanding what’s legally defined as waste is particularly important for a business. You need to know whether something is waste or not to be able to then understand what regulations apply to it and how it should be dealt with, including if you might need an Environmental Permit exemption (such as for the composting example) or if you need to collect waste transfer notes, etc.

Definitions of waste can be found in many Acts and Statutory Instruments, but the main definition that is in force in the UK is found in Article 3 (1) of the European Union (EU) Framework Directive on Waste (WFD) (2008/98/EC). This states that waste is:

“...any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard...”

This Directive was transposed into UK law through The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 which is supplemented by the Waste (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Wales) Regulations 2011 and in Northern Ireland into the Waste Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2011.

Can a substance or object cease to be waste?

Yes! But once a substance or object has been discarded as waste, something usually needs to be done for it to cease being waste. This can range from minor re-processing to extensive recovery operations. Sometimes, the waste may also need to undergo a series of processing or recovery operations before it is no longer deemed to be waste.

An example to demonstrate this would be if a metal box manufacturer punches out their required parts and patterns from a sheet of metal. Once they have punched all they can from that sheet, it’s no longer of use to them for making their products and they intend to discard it; therefore it becomes waste. The metal is then passed to a scrap metal recycler who recycles the metal into a new metal sheet, or product. The punched metal sheet is still waste until it has been reprocessed.

The Waste Framework Directive also provides end-of-waste criteria for specified waste streams, such as recycling. If your material meets the end of waste test, this means you can create new products with the waste controls no longer applying. If you’re in England, to find out if your waste meets the end of waste test requirements, you can use the IsItWaste tool to do a self assessment to help you decide and ask the Environment Agency Definition of Waste Panel for an opinion.

Hopefully this has helped you understand a bit more about what waste is. Ask away in the comments if you have any questions!


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